Bluegrass music got more than it bargained for when the 2012 IBMA awards show opened by unveiling an unprecedented collaboration between a quintet of the genre’s greatest and most admired talents. Dubbed the Masters of Bluegrass, the five musicians—J. D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Del McCoury, Jerry McCoury and Bobby Osborne—bring to the stage a creative fire stoked by literally centuries’ worth of experience and partnerships that have encompassed every aspect of the music’s fabled history. Home-grown artists who have been blazing trails from rural schoolhouses to urban rock clubs and from early morning local radio shows to national prime time TV appearances, they’ve each been bringing bluegrass to audiences old and new from its earliest days—and as their wildly acclaimed IBMA debut proved, they’re not through thrilling those fans yet.
“I’ve been knowing all of these guys for a long, long time,” chuckles Del McCoury, “and it just feels good to stand on stage with them. We all know all the old songs, so those just fall into place, and we’re working on each other’s songs—and some new things, too. It’s exciting to see the way it’s all coming together.”
A recent inductee into the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame—Crowe preceded him in 2003, while Osborne was named a member in 1994—Del looks to be the group’s primary spokesman, a role for which the amiable patriarch of one of the world’s most beloved bands seems well-suited. But the Masters are definitely a union of equals, as McCoury himself is quick to point out. “As young as they were, brother Jerry and I looked up to Bobby Hicks, J. D. and Bobby Osborne as heroes,” he laughs. “They’ve all been at it even longer than I have—and that’s a long time!”
Indeed, virtually every account of bluegrass history acknowledges Bobby Osborne as one of the genre’s greatest giants, not only as a stunning singer, but as an innovative mandolin stylist and songwriter, too. While still in his teens, he joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, one of the first bands to gravitate to the fledgling style in the late 1940s, and never looked back. Partnered with his banjo-playing brother, Sonny, Bobby joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1964, made music history with “Rocky Top,” toured with legends like Merle Haggard, and led a ground-breaking ensemble that planted bluegrass sounds deep in the heart of country music all the way into the 21st century. Following Sonny’s retirement, Bobby embarked on a solo career that has refined and enlarged his distinctive blend of country and bluegrass.
Making his first recordings in the early 1950s with bluegrass legend Jim Eanes, Bobby Hicks went on to become one of Bill Monroe’s favorite fiddle players, appearing on such classics as “Big Mon,” “Wheel Hoss” and “Cheyenne.” A double threat who’s as much at home with the dance rhythms of western swing as with bluegrass virtuosity, Hicks worked an extended stint with singer Judy Lynn before signing on with Ricky Skaggs and contributing mightily to the younger man’s chart-topping sound for the next several decades. His own Fiddle Patch featured several hit collaborations with McCoury, and the two have formed the core of several Blue Grass Boys reunion performances. Hicks also appears in a variety of settings on stage and in the studio, where his legendary abilities continue to earn the respect and enthusiasm of generations of younger musicians.
J. D. Crowe began learning banjo almost literally at the feet of Earl Scruggs, whom he got to watch during an extended Flatt & Scruggs stay in Crowe’s home town of Lexington, KY. He first began to attract national attention during a brief tour with Mac Wiseman, and then leapt into the front ranks of banjo pickers—and harmony singers—as a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys. Starting in the early 1960s, he led the Kentucky Mountain Boys and then the New South into bluegrass history, recording influential albums with members like Skaggs, Tony Rice and Keith Whitley, touring extensively and balancing a command of tradition with a desire for innovation and musical exploration. With Hicks, he was a founding member of the Bluegrass Album Band, bringing energetic interpretations of the first-generation songbook (including Osborne Brothers material) to new audiences. J. D. and his music were the subjects of a full-length book published in 2012, which earned its author the IBMA’s Print Media Person of the Year award.
Of all who can be considered bluegrass music’s elder statesmen, none has taken the music to as many new places or introduced it to as many new fans in the past quarter century as Del McCoury. Though he followed his mid-60s stint in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys with more than two decades of part-time music-making, Del became known as one of the most relaxed and open-minded participants—and one of the most intense singers—in the world of bluegrass, and when he and his family moved to Nashville a little more than 30 years ago, fame was quick to follow. Fronting his Del McCoury Band, which includes sons Ron and Rob, he has become a welcome sight everywhere from David Letterman’s show and the New Orleans Jazz Festival to bluegrass festivals tucked away out beyond where cell phone signals reach. He’s a Grammy winner, a member of the Grand Ole Opry, one of Elvis Costello’s favorite musicians, and a man who’s at home in virtually every musical circumstance—and through it all, he’s retained a signature sound that’s still every bit as exciting as it is familiar.
Rounding out the Masters is a musician whose resume reads like a roll call of bluegrass music’s greats—starting with his brother, Del. A bassist who’s influenced generations of musicians with strong, steady playing, Jerry McCoury has served long stretches working with his brother, but also with Hall of Famers like Don Reno and Red Allen. Indeed, it was working with Jerry on the late 80s McCoury Brothers album that helped persuade Del that it was time to get deeper into the profession, and Jerry went on to do more pioneering work with artists like the late John Hartford, appearing on the latter’s touchstone Wild Hog In The Red Brush. Deft on his instrument and a singer who can hold his own with anyone, Jerry McCoury is the perfect foundation for the Masters of Bluegrass.